War and Conflict

The War on Terror

What was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal?

News of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were being held by members of the U.S. military during Operation Iraqi Freedom, first surfaced in April 2004 when shocking photographs began appearing in the American media. The photos depicted an array of hideous abuses, all of them in violation of the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war.

The deep troubles first surfaced in spring 2003 when International Red Cross and human rights groups complained that American troops had been mistreating Iraqi prisoners. The U.S. Army launched an investigation into its prison system; a fact-finding mission was eventually led by Major-General Antonio Taguba, who completed his report in February 2004. It stated that one police company at Abu Ghraib had committed “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses.” The Taguba report also found that “supervisory omission was rampant” at the prison. More investigations and reports followed, taking into account other prisons under Central Command. Some of the reports tied prisoner deaths to the abuses.

The scandal sent shockwaves around the world and sparked an intense debate about how such abuses could have happened. The tortures were labeled by some as “unauthorized actions taken by a few individuals.” But others believed they were a manifestation of policy that had gone wrong. The scandal soon widened: By May 2004 British newspapers began reporting abuses by British troops. While Prime Minister Tony Blair (1953-) apologized for any mistreatment Iraqi prisoners may have suffered at the hands of British troops, President Bush went on Arabic television to denounce the abuses as “abhorrent”; he stopped short of an apology, saying that the mistreatment “does not represent the America that I know.” Both nations moved quickly to bring charges against several soldiers shown in the pictures. The guilty verdicts, and subsequent sentences, began being handed down in May 2004.

The prison scandals fueled criticism of the controversial war in Iraq. They also prompted a deadly backlash from the Arab world: Insurgents in Iraq began a series of kidnappings of Americans and British citizens working in Iraq, most of them ending in ghastly and widely publicized killings. Between spring 2004 and spring 2005 more than 200 foreigners were taken captive in Iraq; more than 30 of them were killed by their kidnappers.


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